Aikido & Beginners
One of my teachers, Shihan Ken Cottier, founder of the Hong Kong Aikido Federation, was unable to attend the AFSA Winter School this year. Going through my papers I found an article he wrote many years ago, first published in AIKIDO (vol.14 no.4), the official publication of the AIKIKAI FOUNDATION- and the message and wisdom is still as true now as it was then. For teachers and students alike. I share it with you...
With over 4,000,000,000 people occupying this planet of ours is it not an amazing fact that not even two of us are alike? What may be considered beautiful to one, is quite unattractive and offers nothing to another. Some will obtain fulfilment and satisfaction in risking their lives to scale a dangerous mountain. Others get pleasure from spending a whole evening in front of the television set, in reading a book or collecting stamps. Some of us require so much out of life; others ask for so little. There are born fighters, having quick reactions and a natural fighting ability. Others tremble at the very thought of any form of violence. There are those that can endure much pain and physical hardships, even though small in body. Some have flexible joints and are naturally agile, whilst others may be stiff and inflexible. I can still remember during my school days one particular boy, although small, feared nobody, and challenged boys double his size.
When teaching beginners, I always try to bear these facts in mind. I think this is especially important if one is endeavouring to establish Aikido in an area where it is not well known, and beginners form the nucleus of the dojo. Even in well-established dojos. I feel special attention should be paid to beginners, rather than middle or senior kyu grades, who have already spent one or two years in Aikido, and have accepted it.
In the opening paragraph, I spoke of how different we all are. I have met beginners who have offered strong resistance and have been quite unconcerned by my grade. On the other hand there have been others who have been genuinely afraid on being approached and have become tense and nervous. I also find it interesting that some, although being well-educated, just cannot coordinate between mind and body. One fellow immediately comes to mind. I spend hours simply trying to teach him irimi tenkan. I would get him to do it then circle the dojo to concentrate on others. By the time I got back to him again he had always forgotten it. He was a schoolteacher.
Certain Aikido techniques are rather complex. As being executed, we must concentrate on a number of points at the same time. For instance, distance, hands, feet, head etc. I have a friend who is a skiing coach. We were once discussing teaching methods. "The mind can only accept so much at a time," he said. "If we give a beginner too many points to concentrate on at the same time, this floods the mind," he said. I went along with this. To prove his point he went on telling me that one day whilst in charge of a number of complete beginners,he decided to try something different. He split them up into two groups. To the first group he explained, in his usual manner, exactly what to do with their heads, hands, elbows, knees and feet. To the second group he simply spoke two words: "Lean forward". He said that it was interesting to note that the second group got just as far, and did just as well, as the first group. This gave me something to think about regarding the teaching of Aikido to beginners.
A number of times beginners and lower kyu grades have disappointedly told me that their partners could easily stop them from doing the technique that was being taught. I have tried to point out to them that it is not too difficult to resist each other if they of equal grade, as their partner knows exactly what they are attempting to do during class time.
I feel that many beginners, and graded members too for that matter, really think that they are supposed to resist against each other, rather than work together during class time to improve their Aikido. I mentioned earlier how some beginners become very tense and stiff when approached by a teacher. And does this not sometimes result in injuries? Especially if applications are being taught. The teacher on meeting this stiffness and (out of fear) unintentional resistance, has to exert more pressure on the joint, resulting in the application being applied suddenly, rather than gradually.
Another type of beginner is the one that picks up books dwelling on the spiritual and mental side of Aikido, and its relationship to Zen and other forms of mind training. So they begin their physical training in Aikido concentrating only on ki. Is this not trying to run before we can walk? I feel we should know what we are doing with our hands and feet, in basic techniques, before getting too deeply into the spiritual and mental side of the art.
Finally, still dwelling on how different we all are, there are some of us that are so easily influenced by magazines, movies, television, books or other people. We see a Bruce Lee movie and enrol at the nearest dojo expecting to become experts in a matter of months, only to find that it requires years of dedicated practice to become qualified in any of the arts.
I hope these observations I have made will be of some help to those who have just started in Aikido.
Hong Kong Aikikai
(Shihan Ken Cottier (6th dan) studied under the Founder of Aikido, O-Sensei, from the early '60's and continued to live and train in Japan for almost 25 years. After a couple of years back in England in the mid '80's he went to Hong Kong where he has been the senior instructor to the Hong Kong Aikido Association, and latterly the President of the Association. Ken is a member of the Superior Council of the International Aikido Federation for about 10 years and is one of the Aikikai foundations most trusted and respected "old boys". Sensei Ken, as he is fondly referred to in South Africa is Honorary Life President of the Aikido Federation of South Africa.)